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The Bare Facts About Science Radio

Editor's note: Chris Smith is a busy man. As well as being a scientist leading the hectic life of a hospital doctor, Smith runs the UK's newest interactive science radio show, the Naked Scientists. What does it take to juggle three demanding careers? Kat Arney investigates.

Smith first got interested in science communication in 1999 when he realised there had to be more to life than his MB/PhD in virology at the University of Cambridge. While demonstrating the extraction of DNA from onions as part of National Science Week, he was spotted by the crew from a local commercial radio station and invited to go on air to discuss science issues. With the help of a few willing volunteers and a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Smith set up the Naked Scientists show--a fun mix of science news and music, chats with local (and further flung) scientists, and phone calls from the audience. Four years on, Smith has gained his PhD, worked as a National Health Service doctor, and won a clinical lectureship at Cambridge--and the Naked Scientists is still running!

Smith has no formal training in radio and it was very much a case of sink or swim. But enthusiasm for science communication and a strong desire to improve pulled the team through the early shows. "I used to spend hours listening to recordings of our previous material, picking out the good and bad points, in my quest for perfection," Smith recalls. "It took about 5 or 6 months of on-air experimentation to come up with the ideal format, which most of my stuff is based on today." Smith puts the show's popularity down largely to the phone-in format. Callers can chat live on-air with top scientists, quizzing them about their work and ideas.

It may not come as a surprise that the key issue in leading a triple life as a scientist, medic, and radio presenter is finding the time for all three. While doing his PhD, Smith discovered that one of the biggest bonuses of doing science is the flexibility to organise your own time, and returning to medicine was frustrating in this regard.

After working as a senior house officer at the Hammersmith Hospital, London, Smith took a brief break from medicine to transfer the show to BBC local radio. But he's now back in both lab and clinic as a clinical lecturer in Cambridge, splitting his working time equally between the two. Although this position offers him more flexibility again, Smith expects to be busy and admits that sometimes it's hard to find enough hours in the day. "I haven't been to bed much before 2 a.m. for the last 2 years, but when you find something you're passionate about, you just find the energy," he explains.

Turning up to make a live programme on a Sunday evening every week is a major commitment. It may only be a 1-hour show, but the preparation is colossal. Smith spends his weekends ensuring that the news stories are up to date, that everyone else has done their tasks, and that the interview guest is going to turn up. There's a lot of pressure, but Smith maintains that, although organising the show has caused him a few sleepless nights, the stress is tolerable as he can always find ways to get round the problems. "Hospital medicine is stressful in a different way--you don't have any control over your life," he says. "Compared to the demands of consultants, patients, and audits, radio's a breeze!"

One major challenge for Smith and the team of the Naked Scientists is to actually track down researchers willing to subject themselves to the demands of live radio! Another is fund-raising: Resources such as air-time and hosting for the show's sister Web site do not come cheap. The project has been sustained by a number of short-term grants from bodies such as the Royal Society's COPUS, Cambridge University, and BBSRC. But any plans of retiring on the proceeds of radio stardom are on hold at the moment as the team members give their time to the site and the show free.

But along with the panic and pressure comes a lot of personal satisfaction. "The amazing success of the show and the Web site is really gratifying," says Smith. There is also the opportunity to do a bit of hero-worship, such as when Smith met David Attenborough during a meeting at the Science Museum. "He stood up, held out his hand, and introduced himself," says Smith. "I wanted to blurt out 'My hero!' there and then, but I waited until after the meeting to pay homage!" Smith also recalls being very proud to see the Naked Scientists Web site reviewed in Science this year. "As I said to a colleague, 'that's probably the only time any work of mine will ever appear in Science'!"

Smith has some sound advice for people hoping to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in science communication. "Don't give up your day job, at least not initially," he says. "You need a safety net until you either get established or decide that the media is too hostile an environment." Contacts are also all important. "You live and die by your contacts and your experience," he emphasises. "Initially try to hook up with a small outfit doing something relevant to your skills or interests, either in the form of a magazine, radio programme, or local science events." He also warns you should develop a skin as thick as old boots: "Expect people to turn your ideas and work down 100% of the time, and then you are guaranteed happiness at least 1% of the time!"

Next on the agenda for Smith is a 6-month trip to Australia, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, to work with ABC Radio National. "They have an excellent reputation for science output," he explains, "so naturally I wanted to go there to improve my production and presentation skills."

In the long term, Smith hopes to go national with the show and make it a brand synonymous with quality science content. So what about his career in clinical science? It may not come as a surprise that this is definitely on the agenda, too. Smith recognises that keeping a foot in the academic science camp is crucial for the show's scientific integrity, as well as being a useful source of support and resources. So it looks like the future for Smith, and the Naked Scientists, will be busier!

The Naked Scientists is broadcast on BBC local radio across the east of England every Sunday evening at 6 p.m. Radio material, plus articles and a discussion forum can also be found on the Naked Scientists Web site.